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Mental Schemas #8: Enmeshment and Undeveloped Self

Handling negative emotions

This is the eighth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.


Where do you end and I begin?
A person with the enmeshment schema is completely wrapped up in someone else’s life. It’s often a parent, but it can be anyone with a strong personality: a husband, a wife, a boss, a brother or sister … even a best friend. Enmeshed people ignore their own preferences and ideas and order everything in their lives according to the needs of the parent or other person they’re enmeshed with.

Some common feelings enmeshed people have are:

  • They/I/we couldn’t survive without this bond
  • I feel guilty if I keep anything separate
  • I feel completely smothered

Enmeshed people almost always have an “undeveloped self”: they don’t know what they want or need, what they prefer, where they’re going in life, or what would make them happy. It’s possible also to have the undeveloped self problem without the enmeshment problem, to feel empty and directionless and uncertain of wants and needs without necessarily being wrapped up in another person.

There’s a related schema called “subjugation,” where a person feels like they must act according to other people’s wishes, but instead of feeling closeness, subjugated people usually feel resentment, anger, and despair. An enmeshed person feels smothered; a subjugated person feels crushed. I’ll talk about subjugation in a separate post in future.

Enmeshed people and other people with undeveloped selves usually end up that way because of parents or other figures in their lives who are overprotective, abusive, or controlling.

Disentangling
In order to make progress in their own lives, enmeshed people first have to come to feel it’s OK to separate from the other, to be their own person. If they’re able to get to that point, they can begin to reflect on what they themselves really like, want, need, aspire to, and believe. Really knowing who we are and what’s important to us personally in life is what allows us to develop.

There are some dangers for an enmeshed person trying to get out of enmeshment. For instance, sometimes it can happen that an enmeshed person separates from the other by deciding that they hate everything that person loves, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, this still isn’t finding an individual self, because just doing the opposite of someone else still means that one’s decisions are based on another person.

Another danger is of getting out of an enmeshed situation is falling right into another–for instance, leaving a too-close relationship with a parent by getting into a romantic relationship with someone who has a very strong personality and becoming enmeshed with that person instead, or working through enmeshment in therapy and separating from the other person only to become enmeshed with the therapist. (Good therapists take pains to prevent this from getting very far!)

So the other goal, in addition to finding one’s own preferences and identity, is to learn how to have healthy relationships with other people, relationships that are connected but not enmeshed. The best tool I know of for this is mindfulness, being aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and preferences from moment to moment in our lives. It’s only when we lose track of our own thinking that we can get overwhelmed with someone else’s.

Ending enmeshment and developing the self take a lot of hard work and understanding, and can often be especially well helped by a good cognitive therapist.

Photo by Djuliet

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